Guest Post: The Hobby-Writer’s Tale by Basil Mahon

1 Sep


I took up book writing after retiring from regular work. It’s a wonderful hobby, but a harsh one. Being able to write well is not enough. To gain even the most modest success you need passion for your subject, great perseverance, and a measure of luck. I am one of the lucky ones, having had three books published which together have sold about 50,000 copies and been translated into five languages. This hasn’t made me rich but I have the tremendous satisfaction of knowing that every day someone, somewhere in the world, is getting enjoyment from reading my words. Perhaps something of what I’ve learned on the way may be useful to someone setting out on a similar path. I hope so.

There’s something paradoxical about writing a book. It’s a solitary activity—there’s no escaping the sense of isolation when one faces the first blank page. Yet, to me, the joy of writing lies in the fellowship with readers, in the sharing of enjoyment.

Working for many years in the army and then the civil service gave me plenty of practice in a different kind of writing. There, one had to tell people to do things, or how to do them. Some of these things were important, so everything had to be clear and, preferably, brief. Writing good orders was a satisfying craft to master but all the time I was writing for an audience that was ready-made and captive. It would be quite a different matter to attract an audience and to write every sentence in a way that would make the reader want to read the next one.

Nevertheless I felt impelled to try. Over the years, I had become fascinated by reading about scientific discoveries and the people who made them, but all this was a world largely unknown to friends and colleagues. How could it be that almost nobody had heard of the wonderfully brilliant James Clerk Maxwell or the wonderfully eccentric Oliver Heaviside? Writing about them, I have simply tried to share my own enjoyment with readers, and it is an immense source of satisfaction to know that many people have taken the same pleasure in reading my books that I took in writing them.

My first book was about Maxwell, the great 19th century Scottish physicist who, among other things, predicted the electromagnetic waves that give us radio, television, radar, satellite navigation, and cell phones. After stumbling my way through research—reading every relevant book I could find, poring through archived papers, and visiting Maxwell’s home ground in Scotland—I put together the first draft of a book, picked some publishers from the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook, and wrote off to them with a proposal. One rejection slip followed another and I’d acquired about thirty of them before a telephone call came from Wiley. You need luck and I’d found it, in the form of a sympathetic editor. The book came out the following year and has sold well.

Over the years I’d picked up some tips on writing from books and articles. The most memorable of these ran on the lines: “When revising your work, select the finest passage and then cross it out.” In other words, don’t try to impress the reader with your eloquence. My editor put it another way, saying: “We don’t want readers to think that you’re clever, we want them to feel that they’re clever.” Extending the theme, I eventually learned that one needn’t always explain everything in detail—it’s better to trust readers to work things out for themselves. That way, the whole thing becomes a joint enterprise and readers enjoy feeling part of it.

Most of what I know about the art of writing books was learned on the job. Anyone who has tried will know that sentences that are easy to read are often very hard to write. I’ve often spent days searching for the right word or phrase and, if I didn’t find one, re-writing the whole passage from a different angle. I try to write biographies that read as easily as a good novel, and when the story shifts from one event, scene, or topic to another it’s not always easy to write a smooth linking passage. Sometimes a simple link like “Meanwhile, across the Atlantic…” will do, but a method I’ve found useful in harder cases is to base the link on something that has already happened in the story, thus helping the reader to connect the new event, scene, or topic with something familiar.

Another useful device is what I call the “Wilkie Collins”. He wrote The Moonstone—possibly the world’s first detective novel—and often used to finish a chapter with something like: “Little did he know what trials lay ahead”. If written with a little more subtlety, and not done too often, such indications of excitement to come can help to sustain the reader’s interest.

Good luck to anyone taking up book-writing as a hobby. You’ll need it!

Basil Mahon’s latest book is The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science, published by Prometheus Books on September 12, 2017.

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